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To tantalize audiences on Valentine’s Day weekend into seeing “Fifty Shades of Grey,” one of Hollywood’s most sexually provocative studio offerings in years, the film’s marketing campaign takes a less-is-more approach. Sex may sell, but Universal Pictures and Focus Features are intent on wooing women without going too far, in order to successfully launch the $40 million bigscreen adaptation of E.L. James’ novel, which became a massive bestseller thanks to its graphic sex scenes.

One of the main images on billboards and in online ads shows female lead Dakota Johnson (as Anastasia Steele) in a sultry pose with her arms raised above her head, appearing as if they’re tied up, with Jamie Dornan (Christian Grey) about to kiss her. The tagline reads: “Curious?” — a question designed for moviegoers, but also a clever reference to the movie’s characters.

The film’s trailers and TV spots have gone further, playing up Grey’s extravagant lifestyle — his penthouse apartment rising high above Seattle, his slick Audi sedan, expensive wardrobe and helicopter. They also promote the growing love affair between Grey and Steele, showing their courtship through romantic moments, including a flight in a glider. Early print ads were mostly in black-and-white, with the first poster simply picturing Dornan standing at a floor-to-ceiling window. Subsequent ads show him with a silver tie wrapped tightly around his fist, his head partly out of view. Every element of the marketing manages to mix in subtle hints of what made James’ trio of books, which has sold 100 million copies worldwide, so captivating in the first place: the S&M — or “strong sexual and unusual behavior” that earned the film its R rating. There are teasing shots of Dornan’s abs; Grey’s Red Room of Pain, where the couple indulges in sadomasochism; and glimpses of whips and masks.

The “Fifty Shades” marketing team has been crafting the strategy for nearly three years, after conducting research on what its target audience would be interested in seeing — and what attracted them to the books in the first place.

“The blatant sex isn’t what the film’s all about,” says one marketing executive who helped carefully craft the film’s promotional message by using extensive analytical research on the “Fifty Shades” fanbase. “It’s all about the allure of Christian Grey and his world.” That’s meant “peeling back layers without giving away a lot.”

Universal always knew that the S&M elements would be considered too taboo for some moviegoers and most licensing partners, who typically steer clear of R-rated properties.

The soundtrack is loaded with notable artists like Beyonce and the Rolling Stones who are popular with a broad audiences. A musicvideo of the Weeknd’s “Earned It” features a nearly-nude Johnson in full dominatrix mode.

What’s helped connect the film with fans is a tactic borrowed from Lionsgate’s “Hunger Games” campaigns: using memorable quotes from the book like “Mr. Grey will see you now” combined with art from the movie.

The marketing effort’s also gone directly to the audience on a variety of platforms, including television, Facebook, Pinterest — and a game inviting players to work as “interns” at Grey Enterprises.

In the coming weeks, “Fifty Shades” ads will blanket female-skewing shows like ABC’s “Scandal” and “How to Get Away With Murder,” while NBC’s “Today Show” received exclusive access to the set and footage, and ran a contest to show the film early to fans.

Johnson and Dornan, who recently got attention as Golden Globes presenters, were also featured in a Valentine’s Day-themed TV spot promoting advance ticket sales on Fandango, which generated even more buzz from the mostly female audience that watches the awards show. The ad was viewed more than 7 million times on YouTube alone.

“Fifty Shades” marketing is taking advantage of Pinterest’s 71% female userbase, promoting the film with an extensive photo board. The movie’s official Facebook page has 7.3 million likes, with the social network also offering photos from the film along with quotes from the book.

The last major marketing effort will revolve around encouraging moviegoers to see the film in groups — the way they turned out in droves for the first “Sex and the City,” which opened to $57 million in late May in 2008. Universal turned to Fandango and MovieTickets.com to pre-sell ducats to “Fifty Shades” eight weeks before its release.

Fandango said the film has become the fastest selling R-rated picture in the site’s 15-year history.

Box office analysts expect the picture to open at around $60 million, though early tracking puts the figure closer to $40 million. But Fandango also is seeing stronger-than-expected demand in Southern states, including Mississippi, Arkansas, West Virginia and Alabama, where pre-sale numbers are outpacing other films by as high as 270%. Theaters in major markets are also reporting sellouts, making its opening week performance hard to predict. The last film to get a significant Valentine’s Day boost was 2010’s “Valentine’s Day,” debuting with $56 million.

“Female moviegoers are driving social conversations around this film in numerous ways,” says Fizziology general manager Rich Calabrese, noting, “Over the past week, 86% of all retweets from the film’s Twitter account came from women.”

The question now is just how curious they are to pay to see it.

Social Phenomenon:
According to social media researcher Fizziology, “Fifty Shades” is hot:

490,000 Mentions on Twitter in the past seven days, much higher than for other adaptations such as “The Fault in Our Stars,” “The Maze Runner” and recent “Hunger Games” films.

65% – Percentage of positive conversation, evidence that graphic sex isn’t a negative. The soundtrack is also driving positive mentions.

16% – Percentage of moviegoers creating messages who are sharing “intent to see” the film.